In the summers of 1898 and 1900, Professor John George Jack, dendrologist and lecturer at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, worked as an agent for the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1900, he traveled to the western United States to survey, collect and document plants in central Colorado and the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.
Jack produced detailed documentation and photographs of his travels in Asia, Europe and the United States. Fortunately for us, his series of photographs in the Bighorns has been preserved and led me to explore one of the more interesting enterprises ever undertaken in the national forest.
In 1891, the Fortunatus Mining and Milling Company was incorporated by a group in Albany, New York, with half a million dollars in capital stock (and reportedly little experience with mining). Curiosity led me to investigate the origin of the company’s name.
“Fortunatus” comes from a 16th century story called “Fortunatus and His Purse.” Fortunatus was a young man seeking worldly success when a series of events led him to a scary night in the woods involving lions, bears and near starvation. Out of nowhere, a beautiful lady appeared. Dame Fortune was her name and she asked him to choose which gift he would have: wisdom, strength, long life, riches, health or beauty. He chose riches. She gave him a magic purse in which he and his children would always find 10 pieces of gold.
Three hundred or so years later, New York entrepreneurs must have believed that others knew the legend of Fortunatus and that the name would draw investors. It did.
The allure of gold has enticed people for millennia. In 1848, thousands of prospective gold miners traveled over land and sea to the Sacramento Valley in California, increasing tenfold the population of San Francisco. The results weren’t nearly as dramatic when the prospect of gold in the Bighorns was reported in the mid-1800s.
“Gold or even the strong hope of gold can be unsettling for some nervous systems,” writes one account of people’s attitudes at the time. The Fortunatus Company promoted their properties at Bald Mountain City in the Bighorn Mountains, where gold fever led to the most extensive attempt at gold mining in the Bighorns. Teams of oxen hauled machinery supplies from Dayton.
An account of a trip to Bald Mountain City in 1891 describes the four-day journey from Sheridan. The writer notes about 100 busy men in the camp.
“Men have been employed and are now at work on the construction of eight houses for the company, 3,000 cords of wood will be cut as fast as possible, and a large general merchandizing establishment will be erected.”
The “Denver Syndicate” posited that 5,000 people will follow.
Interest in the venture waxed and waned. Waxed with new publicity, such as when the same 1891 visitor wrote, “The fact is already established that the Bald Mountain mining district embraces a larger area than any other known placer diggings in the world.”
By 1893, Bald Mountain City had grown to 21 log houses, tents, two or three stores, a post office and, of course, a saloon.
Interest waned in 1896 when geologists said the claim was exaggerated and in 1898 when the United States Investor reported that the stock “is considered worthless by stockholders in Sheridan County, Wyo.”
By 1900, when Jack visited the site, only pieces of the stamping mill and mine remained. Photographs from the 1930s, 1940s, 1970s and 2016 show what nature at 9,600 feet does to human-made structures. Bald Mountain City, scene of such excitement, has rotted away.
The site of Bald Mountain City is located off U.S. Highway 14A about 18 miles west of Burgess Junction. Turn right onto Forest Service Road 14 and then right onto Forest Service Road 125. The site is marked with a sign and all that remains are a few decaying logs, rusty cans and a remnant of a metal pipe.
A 16th century legend about a young man born on a Greek island inspired a short-lived gold rush in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming.
Susan Douglas is a public affairs specialist with the Bighorn National Forest.